Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Disney, where I over-analyse the Disney animated films.
This week we’re taking a look at Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Yes one of Disney’s shortest and most simplistic movies has both a lot to talk about, but very little substance of to it. At once a complex tale on morality and a harmless kids film. But onto the breakdown.
As mentioned in the title, Dumbo is the story of innocence. And what’s more innocent than the idea of storks delivering babies to expectant mothers? Sure it’s a story that makes no real sense and existed before Disney, but is this the one that really popularised the myth and made it somewhat timeless? Nevertheless, it is still the most innocent way of explaining how Jumbo Jr. comes onto the scene (it’s odd that people call him Dumbo outside of the film even though it was essentially an insult, since that wasn’t what his name was). Anyway like I said, the most innocent way of describing a character’s entrance.
And while we’re talking about Dumbo lets discuss his character: He doesn’t have one. Well that’s not entirely true. Yes he’s cute and inquisitive and a variety of other characteristics, but proactive certainly isn’t one of them. Very rarely can Dumbo have a say in anything going on around him. In fact the reason why his flying at the end (spoilers for a 70 year old film that has its big twist given away in the trailer) is so significant is because it’s the first time the character has really done anything. The rest of the time he just reacts to the world around him without having much of a say. So here we have the interesting case of a protagonist that does nothing, yet still plays an important part. You couldn’t have the film without him. But whilst not being proactive doesn’t make him a bad character, it doesn’t make him as interesting to talk about as some of the other Disney protagonists. If anything, Dumbo is more of a symbol of childlike innocence and life than an actual character. Again, nothing wrong with it, just nothing to really work with.
Though side note about the whole ‘child-like innocence’ thing: He pretty much symbolizes the old clichÃ© of the child ‘running away to join the circus’. And the downside to that. Perhaps entirely unintentional, but that made me laugh.
But anyway, onto the bit everyone wants me to talk about: The apparent racism in this film. And yes, I can’t argue against it, there is a legitimate case to be made. The men that put up the circus tent in the rain do fulfil several negative stereotypes about their race and are culturally damning nowadays, but it does reflect views held within society at the time. Should it be edited to better fit in with today’s enlightened viewpoints? Well perhaps, but then the problem of censorship and political correctness rears its ugly head-
Oh you’re talking about the crows and how they set a negative stereotype. Oh yeah, I totally agree. I mean that lead, Jim Crow, look at how bad the example he is setting. Smoking a cigar like that. Yes back then it’d be more culturally acceptable for people to smoke out in public and smoking was seen as ‘cool’, but nowadays it is frowned upon. Though I don’t know if you could remove it entirely without causing some problems-
Oh you’re talking about how the crows are bad regardless of the smoking. Well I suppose I could point out that they are more anthropomorphic than other animals, which is pretty odd. I mean you have Timothy the Mouse and the crows that act and talk like humans… and then you have the circus animals that act like their respective animals. There’s no rhyme or reason to which animals are humanised and which aren’t, it just comes down to what the plot says. And since they’re the only humanised animals apart from Timothy, they really are quite odd.
Oh you mean the racism thing. Eh I’m a dumb white guy, so I refuse to comment on it.
So what’s the other big talking point about this movie? Well there’s the infamous ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ sequence that doesn’t make a lick of sense, but I think I know the reason why: It was a holdover from Fantasia. Okay not the actual animation, but ask yourself this: Had it been set to more appropriate music and stuck into Fantasia, would you really have noticed it being too out of place? No, not really. It would have seemed like it fit in perfectly. So perhaps the craziness of Pink Elephants is just because it’s in the wrong film at the wrong time. That Disney still wanted to experiment with the idea of making beautiful animation go with music. So think of it as a holdover.
Anyway, back to the corruption of innocence: Well Dumbo starts off surrounding by love and happiness, only to be slowly torn down by various things. Things like fame, alcohol, false belief and the like (think about the magic feather: it’s false attribution in things that aren’t really real, thus instilling a false belief into the elephant). He is slowly but surely exposed to corrupting influences that should break a lesser elephant. But that’s the key theme of the story, isn’t it: Innocence and belief trumps over cynicism. Dumbo can fly despite what people tell him and because he has huge ears. That’s the simplistic moral of a rather simplistic story.
Because at the end of the day, Dumbo is little more than an extra long silly symphony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a somewhat decent movie. But conceptually it’s rather simplistic, it’s only an hour in length, and it was made on the cheap to recoup on failed films. But ultimately Dumbo is just a short cartoon made into a longer one, nothing more.
But one last interesting thing to note: Not only has the film produced the ever popular Dumbo ride and the Casey Jr. train ride, it has also lead to an entirely new land being created at my work, Storybook Circus. No other film has ever had that much of an impact in regards of having so many themed attractions in the park. Funny for a film that doesn’t have that much in it.
Anyway so there you have it. A quick look at the relatively small Dumbo that’s had a big impact. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to comment. Next time: Bambi: The Futility of Life.